First there was the snow, the cold and the wind. Then the prospect of flooding.
Now, there’s another concern – and this time it’s coming from outer space: solar flares.
The burst of charged particles and magnetic field from a sunspot facing the Earth that arrived Thursday has the potential through today to wreak havoc with power grids, high-frequency airline and military communications, GPS signals and civilian communications, while producing hazardous radiation in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
But there could also be an upside – a rare opportunity, if the sky is clear, to catch a glimpse of the shimmering Northern Lights, since the solar flare could shake up Earth’s magnetic field and expand the aurora borealis south.
The University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute predicted the northern lights should be visible to the northern fringes of the United States and much of Canada.
Aaron Reynolds, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Buffalo, said the original G3 conditions, equivalent to “strong,” had dipped to a G2 category, or a “moderate” activity level.
“If there was going to be a major alert, they would have given it to us, and they haven’t,” Reynolds said of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
The sunspot that produced the solar flare eruption occurred at 1:32 p.m. Tuesday and reached the Earth’s magnetic field at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Alan Friedman, a research associate in astronomy with the Buffalo Museum of Science, said the sunspot activity was visible to the naked eye if seen through a welder’s glass or other safety filter.
The amateur astronomer doubted the solar flares would create serious problems, although he said power grids were “the most vulnerable” part of the nation’s infrastructure to their effects.
“They do have disruptive potentials. If you were an astronaut you’d want to pay particular attention to them, because stuff that travels in a solar flare can be dangerous to things outside our atmosphere,” Friedman said.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Western New York will be downright balmy over the next few days.
Today’s high will be in the high 30s with nothing falling from the sky.
Saturday will be even warmer – all the way into the 50s – but there is the prospect for rain, which, when combined with melting snow, poses the danger of flooding in the same areas that were affected by high water in the days leading up to Christmas. Sunday will be back in the 30s with neither rain nor snow.